I don’t know about you, but to me, heavy metal and D&D just went hand in hand back when we first started. I am not sure if it was the outsider status of both, but I am positive it was not just us. From Black Sabbath’s The Wizard to Frazetta’s paintings on Molly Hatchet, there has been overlapping and we know it. Eddie Munson in Stranger Things is the new Dungeon Master Trope (which is much cooler than the old depictions such as the nerdy young DM in Wet Hot American Summer), but I am ok with it leaning more into the metal and away from the geeky.
I discovered D&D and Led Zeppelin IV at the same time. I was already well versed in Tolkien, but the option to explore that world on my own, especially while listening to Robert Plant crone about the Misty Mountains just rocked the world.
The Satanic Panic took over too, making both D&D and metal even more enticing.
All of these things just brought the two together in a brimstone and fire combo. So is it just me, or do you feel the same way?
Dane: I didn’t associate the two back then, but I agree with you about the outsider status.
My older sisters were into heavy metal. In 1980, when I was 5 years old, my favorite band was AC/DC (almost metal). A few years later, my favorite band was Judas Priest. I’d never heard of D&D at that time. I’m not even sure I knew about fantasy fiction. I was into horror movies, and when I started reading, my first books were Robert Bloch’s Psycho and Stephen King.
It was actually a Mormon friend (who did not share my taste in music) who introduced me to D&D when I was 11. He had an older brother who had started playing, and they needed more people, so we were invited to play with them. We played Saga of the Shadow Lord, which, to this day, has one of my favorite covers.
I was instantly hooked and was determined to learn the rules…and I discovered fantasy novels in the process.
This was at the beginning of the Satanic Panic, which I remember well. My mother watched a special on television about the evils being unleashed by this game of the occult. That made me even more interested, and it did fit (at that time) with my drive toward rebellion.
My Mormon friends were soon forbidden from playing, but I asked my parents to get me the rulebooks, and they did, and soon I was playing with other friends, taking turns playing and DMing.
It wasn’t until high school in the 90s that I had any sense of D&D being considered nerdy, and at that point, I felt like I was bridging two worlds…and they bridged well. Remember, in our early games, we were persuading people who probably thought of the game as nerdy to play with us, and that’s probably some of the best fun they’ve had.
I totally agree with the drive towards rebellion being part of my love of both. Fantasy and metal both had crosshairs pointed at them in the 80’s and 90’s, and both were so appealing to me. I once tried to explain to my aunt why I was attracted to these on a primal level, and just couldn’t. If you have never heard a guitar riff with that perfect tone and immediately started nodding your head, you won’t understand.
It’s so silly looking back. Everyone was so upset about a game with goblins and lots of math and some dudes in make-up singing about rather silly things. But if you didn’t have a stick up your arse, it was all fun and games. But since people were so against them, not only was it a rebellion, but it felt like we could see more about the world. Maybe it was also my first lesson in not taking things seriously when it was just a headline, that you had to look deeper into something to see what it’s really about.
As for playing with our other friends, once we got past the hump of “this is for nerds”, we always had a blast. Thinking back on this, I wonder if the link I am feeling between TTRPG and metal is related to being the Dungeon Master back then. We never had music playing while we played, but when I was creating the adventures, I was locked away in my treehouse blasting Black Sabbath while writing and sketching furiously on notebook paper.
Writing this article makes me feel like maybe this connection I was feeling between these two was just that they were both counter-culture and fringe, but my dark heart wants to say there was something more to it.
For me, there was definitely an attraction to darkness. I remember being about 5 or 6 years old, eyes closed, spacing out, listening to creepy songs like Innagadadavida, and letting my mind wander to strange places. My mom used to scare us by putting on the long drum section of that song, then putting hose over her face and scaring us (her mother had started that tradition). It was truly terrifying, but it was fun.
Then I sat with my mom and sisters watching horror movies I was too young to watch, and once again, feeling afraid while also having fun and bonding with my family.
So when I played D&D that first time and saw that creepy book cover, I immediately saw the atmospheric possibilities of the game.
But there’s another element. My oldest sister died soon after I got into the game, and it became an escape for me. This world had become horrifying in a way that was no longer fun, so I was able to create new worlds, filled with danger but also adventure. It made me feel more capable and gave me a sense of control at a time when I felt powerless in my life.
I think that may be why the game was so attractive to kids who were picked on or otherwise made to feel powerless or rejected in their social lives. For one, it’s a fun game that people can play with their friends in the science room at school during lunch (as I did for a while) while avoiding the crowds that might impinge on that fun. But more importantly, it offers an escape and allows us to play characters who have agency, and even power.
I am so happy now that gaming is much more open and part of the zeitgeist for younger people. As we move to a culture that frowns on bullying and ostracizing, these games can just be fun fantasy instead of an outlet for those who are on the outside.
Maybe that’s another part of the gaming/heavy metal connection for me. As someone who was picked on, finding those who went to see Iron Maiden (or insert most other cool metal) were so welcoming. It’s like I showed up in a black leather jacket, unsure of myself and by the end of the concert, a stranger with an amazing mullet was singing along with me. Gaming was the same thing, a community.
Maybe it was also just a specific genre at a specific time. But for me, they will always sit hand in hand.